Handel’s Julius Caesar takes place in Egypt in 48 B.C.
After defeating Pompeo’s forces, Julius Caesar’s political rival and ex-son-in-law, Caesar and his troops settle victoriously on the banks of the Nile river. Pompeo’s second wife, Cornelia, begs Caesar to have mercy upon her husband. He will only show mercy if Pompeo asks for it in person. A few moments later, Achillas, leader of the Egyptian military brings Caesar a casket containing the head of Pompeo, presented as a gift from Ptolemy. Ptolemy and his sister, Cleopatra chose to rule Egypt together. Upset by the gesture, Caesar takes leave to reproach Ptolemy. After Cornelia faints, Caesar’s assistant, Curio, who is secretly in love with Cornelia, tells her that he will avenge her husband’s death. Cornelia disdains his offer, and her son, Sextus takes revenge into his own hands.
Meanwhile, Cleopatra has come to learn that Ptolemy devised plans to murder Pompeo only to gain favor with Caesar. Realizing what she must do, she decides to win favor from the Roman conquerer by her own means. Achillas brings Ptolemy the news that Caesar was unhappy with Pompeo’s death, and offers to kill Caesar himself should he be given Cornelia’s hand in marriage. Ptolemy relishes the thought of no longer having to deal with Caesar, and agrees to Achillas’ terms.
Disguised as “Lidia”, Cleopatra enters into Caesar’s camp. She meets with Caesar, who is distracted by her beauty, and divulges the hardships she has faced. They are interrupted by the grieving Cornelia searching for her husband’s sword. Sextus isn’t far behind to stop her, and he vows to avenge his father’s death. “Lidia” offers guidance to reach Ptolemy, and Caesar, Sextus, and Cornelia leave to find him.
Caesar enters Ptolemy’s palace, suspecting something may happen. When Ptolemy sees Cornelia, he immediately falls in love with her, but gives the impression to Achillas that he will still give her to him. Sextus challenges Ptolemy, but loses, and Cornelia rejects Achillas’ advances. Burned by her emotions, Achillas calls in his soldiers to arrest Sextus.
Caesar has come to Cleopatra’s palace in search of “Lidia.” Cleopatra instructs her advisor to lead Caesar into her room. She begins singing music of love and cupid’s arrows as Caesar draws nearer to her bedroom doors. He is captivated once more by her beauty.
In Ptolemy’s palace, Achillas tries desperately (and unsuccessfully) to win Cornelia’s affections. She turns her head from him in scorn. After the dejected Achillas leaves, Ptolemy takes his turn to win her over, but is met with the same harsh feelings. Sextus arrives hell-bent on killing Ptolemy.
Back in Cleopatra’s bedroom, her tryst with Caesar is interrupted when they hear conspirators approaching. She reveals her true identity to him and offers to help him escape. Instead, he chooses to stay and fight.
Ptolemy sits among his harem of women, including Cornelia, when Sextus bursts into the room, charging the king. Achillas quickly tackles him to the floor and announces that his troops have just attacked Caesar. Having cornered him within the palace, the troops forced him to jump out the window into the billowing sea, where he surely died. Achillas then demands that Ptolemy give Cornelia to him, but Ptolemy refuses. Overcome with grief, Sextus tries to stab himself with his sword, but Cornelia stops him. She relights his vengeful flame and he vows to kill his father’s murderer once again.
Ptolemy and Cleopatra have taken up arms against each other. As their own armies battle for dominance, Caesar, who survived his fall, prays for Cleopatra’s victory. However, Ptolemy triumphs over Cleopatra, and he orders his men to escort her out of the palace in chains. Sextus, on his way to kill Ptolemy, stumbles upon a wounded Achillas. Having been betrayed by Ptolemy, who has kidnapped Cornelia, Achillas hands Sextus a sigil that gives him full command of his troops stationed in a nearby cave. Sextus takes the sigil and Achillas dies. Caesar arrives moments later and asks Sextus to let him take the sigil and control the army, “For if he cannot save both Cornelia and Cleopatra, he will die trying”. Sextus relinquishes the sigil and Caesar quickly departs.
Cleopatra sits in a small cell within a camp of Ptolemy’s troops, and prays for Caesar. She is astonished when she spots him leading an army into the camp. After rescuing her, the lovers embrace before setting out to Ptolemy’s palace. Sextus arrives at the palace first and finds Ptolemy courting his mother again. This time, however, Sextus is able to kill Ptolemy.
When Caesar and Cleopatra enter Alexandria, they are greeted by cheers and adoration. Cornelia presents tokens of Ptolemy’s death to Caesar, who then hands them to Cleopatra. He tells her that he will support her as queen and the two announce their love. The citizens rejoice and revel in new found peace.
Synopsis compiled from historical performance info and various references by the Florentine Opera Company ©2013